KOLKATA, India — The dizzying array of art and kitsch housed within the Marble Palace provided a foreboding sense of beauty amid chaos.
The description for the ramshackle mansion was no more than a line or two in my Lonely Planet guide, but a curious requirement involved first finding the local tourism office to register and make a free reservation for a visit. It was among the first evidence I saw of the country’s storied bureaucracy (along with a passport-verified Internet cafe sign-in).
Approaching the palatial residence, a wild and lively garden spread out past the iron gates to the steps leading to the building. Columns in a neoclassical style adorned the entrance, where several men stood idly. They were the guides, though they sported no discernable uniforms or name tags.
Walking along the marble floors and into the palace, one could see what appeared to be a museum warehouse’s worth of paintings, sculptures and other relics, as if gathered at estate sales for a couple of centuries. Statues of ivory, royal busts fashioned from onyx, Renaissance-style paintings, Bengali landscapes, Victorian-era furnishings and several catalogs’ worth of bric-a-brac filled each of the rooms and lined the walls.
Lacking the art history expertise to determine the priceless items from the worthless ones, I contented myself with having our guide read the captions off the brass plaques and painted picture frames. Works by Titian and Reubens, along with other masters, are said to live within these collections. It seemed plausible.
The guide led our small party from room to room, up the ancient wooden stairs and along an interior courtyard with chicken wire as a ceiling, keeping in the various uncaged birds fluttering about.
No photography was allowed, so I had decided I would quickly make a mental inventory of what I saw, but my memory was quickly overwhelmed and each objets d’art blurred into the next.
Maybe 10 minutes later, we were back at the entrance. The Western tourists before us had thanked their guides and doled out tips. I found my shoes and looked around for a suggested donation amount, since the guides were technically volunteers and subsisted solely on gratuities, as far as I could tell.
I handed over my several remaining rupees — I don’t recall how many — along with a hearty “thank you,” to which the guide responded with a few muttered words to his colleagues I didn’t understand. His face blank, I again thanked him and he walked off. As I walked out past the iron gates at the entrance, the volunteer stationed there just laughed.
Was I a clueless tourist? It appeared so.